Anyone who loves cinema knows the almost dizzying sensation that is felt whenever a new movie from your favorite director is about to hit the big screen. But what happens when your favorite director has been dead for more than three decades — when he died before you were even born? This is how I felt about Orson Welles’s body of work: there would never be anything new for me. Fortunately, I was wrong, and today I experienced this intoxicating sensation when I watched the closest from “brand new” that an incomplete film made by the wonder boy / Hollywood maudit had to offer.
Just like Citizen Kane (1941), this film starts with the ending. We know that we’re watching filmmaker Jake “J.J.” Hannaford’s last day on Earth. After he finishes the daily shootings with a group of naked women in a bath that looks like an orgy, Hannaford invites everybody to his birthday party, thrown by the rich Zarah Valeska (Lili Palmer). On the way to the party, we have cuts between scenes with Hannaford being interviewed by a group of documentarians — and his answers are not really enlightening — a varied group of behind-the-camera workers and horrid mannequins riding a bus and chatting about Hannaford, and the actor Billy Boyle (Norman Foster) showing the daily rushes to studio boss Max David (Geoffrey Land).
Inside the bus we have film critic Juliette Rich (Susan Strasberg), editor Maggie Fassbender (Mercedes McCambridge) and many others. While seeing the rushes, Max and a Billy talk about Hannaford’s new discovery, the star of the film, Johnny Dale (Robert Random), who, according to the director himself, was saved from a suicide attempt and offered the chance to make the movie.
At the party, Juliette tries to get more information about Hannaford’s new film — also called “The other side of the wind” — and questions the director himself, while also trying to approach his disciple Brooks Otterlake (Peter Bogdanovich), who is also a director and might have surpassed his master. Both dodge the questions — sometimes being arrogant, sometimes being funny. When the film without the editing is shown, we realize that there is eroticism all over it, and it makes the also unfinished Inferno by Henri-Georges Clouzot look like a film aimed at children.
When the party is being filmed by the lenses of the “peeping Toms”, it is shown in color on the screen. When the party is seen by the eyes of the people there, it is shown in black and white. When Hannaford blows the candles, we see them being blown out on the mirrored image at Brooks’s glasses, in a formidable effect. The use of shadows and silhouettes is equally formidable, and never exaggerated.
We can’t deny that “The other side of the wind” has autobiographical characteristics. To begin with, the sexy star of the film within the film is Oja Kodar, who Orson Welles was dating at the time, and who was also in “F for Fake”, from 1973. Besides that, Hannaford talks about being behind schedule, something that was pretty common for Welles, and something that cost him a lot in Hollywood — it basically cost his career on the US film metropolis. And just like Welles, Hannaford is broke, and wants to ask Brooks for money. Indeed, during the making of “The other side of the wind”, Welles worked as an actor and narrator in projects by other people, in order to raise money for his movie.
Hannaford is not a sympathetic character. He makes jokes about “fags” and calls his leading lady Pocahontas — the name of the legendary hero became an insult when it was used by Donald Trump as mockery in 2017. And, at the same time, he seduces the women who work with him, and makes the men his disposable toys. This is the dichotomy that Juliette wants to understand.
As the explanative text in the beginning of “The other side of the wind” says, the film — made by Welles as a comeback to Hollywood after a period in Europe — started production in 1970 and the shooting was finished in 1975. From that point until Welles’s passing, in 1985,the editing phase never ended, and 100 hours of raw material were left behind, together with expletive notes, memos and annotated screenplays, things that made the restoration possible. The restorations process is explained in the documentary “They’ll love me when I’m dead”, that also hit Netflix at the same day as the film did.
“The other side of the wind” is a pseudo documentary that showcases well the frantic life in Hollywood — a lifestyle that probably hasn’t changed in the past 40 years. From the studios to the parties, the characters from the town are there. Some foreigners play themselves or characters named after themselves — it’s the case of director Claude Chabrol and actress Stéphane Audran. Other characters are obvious satires — Juliette Rich is the film critic Pauline Kael, whose revisionism of Citizen Kane and help in putting it atop the ranking of the best films ever bothered Welles more than it helped him; and hostess Zarah Valeska is a copy of friend and actress Marlene Dietrich.
“The other side of the wind” does not have inspiring moments that reveals the truth, like in “F for Fake” or in the story about the Brazilian sharks in “The Lady from Shanghai” (1947). It’s not another “Citizen Kane”, the masterpiece Welles made during the only time he had full creative freedom; and it’s not the longed-for restoration of “The Magnificent Ambersons” (1942), the film that would be the director’s second big piece. But it is a recovered film, that maybe deserves to be seen, if only, because it is a film recovered after more than 40 years. It is a film that, after if ends, you should put your hands up, pointing to Heaven, and say thanks because there are people interested in recovering lost films. The more cinema we have to be seen, the better.